NMWA presents the study exhibition Rosa Bonheur: Selected Works from American Collections from December 12, 1989 through March 11, 1990. Consisting of over forty works, this is the first exhibition of Bonheur’s paintings, drawings, and sculpture in the United States since the 1933 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts.
The purpose of the exhibition is to illustrate the artist’s working methodology through the inclusion of initial sketches and studies as well as final compositions. The exhibition also presents selected letters dating from 1861 to 1899 which were written by Bonheur to her student Paul Chardin. These letters provide insight into the historical and cultural background of Bonheur’s career. Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) was one of the leading artists of the Second Empire in France. She was also the first woman artist to receive the French Cross of the Legion of Honor, presented to her by Empress Eugenie in 1865.
Rosa Bonheur specialized in animal paintings and sculpture along with rural themes. She had surrounded herself with pets since childhood, and her work reflects a fascination with all types of animals, from the exotic to the domestic. To study animal anatomy she frequented livestock auctions and slaughterhouses, areas generally open only to men. Obtaining a permit from the French police to wear men’s clothing gave her the freedom to go about her work less conspicuously.
Her increasing popularity came to the attention of Napoleon III, and she was awarded the French Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1865. When she was awarded the French Cross for the second time in 1894 and given the rank of officer, Empress Eugenie stated that “in the case of Rosa Bonheur she was honoring the woman as much as the artist.” The Empress’s remark emphasizes her respect for the achievements of this gifted, independent woman.